John Keats and Urban Time

Matthew Sangster
University of Glasgow

RE: Keats’s 1 Nov 1816 letter to Severn

In the most canonical aspects of Keats’ surviving traces, when time is evoked, it is commonly languid, vast or arrested. The Grecian Urn, despite its age, remains a “still unravish’d bride”, the “foster-child of Silence and slow Time”, a stalled moment that persists over centuries, changing only as its viewers change. In “The Eve of St. Agnes”, the events play out with a teasing languor; the poem is framed by the ancient castle, with its traditions and its elderly inhabitants, and it concludes with the deflection of all that it evokes and depicts into “ages long ago”. Where other poets might rush on, Keats commonly hesitates and dwells, sometimes leisurely, sometimes listless. He often depicts himself as a figure caught up in aftermaths – “too late for antique vows”, as he puts it in the “Ode to Psyche”. The imperative to “Stop and consider!” (from “Sleep and Poetry”) is one that many of his most famous writings both evoke and model.

The other kind of time often associated with Keats is his brief lifespan, a circumstance that we might be reminded of when we note that the addressee of this letter is Joseph Severn, the young artist who would accompany Keats to Italy in 1820 and who nursed the poet during his final illness in their rooms above the Spanish Steps. However, in its content and its form this brief letter also suggests other kinds of temporalities that we associate less commonly with Keats. What I like most about it is how it reminds us that at this point in his career John Keats was a young man in a hurry.

This short epistle is not a letter for the ages, like the commonly-quoted meditations in which Keats reflects on life and art. Instead, it is a slightly slapdash note written busily to a friend to explain Keats’ refusing an invitation due to the pressure of other engagements. This was a moment in the aspirant poet’s life when a whole series of new prospects were opening up, allowing him potential access to a powerful range of cultural spaces, both social and physical. His tone in this letter makes it clear that Keats was keen to take advantage of these opportunities. If he was to make himself a poet, he had to sell himself to influential figures as someone who would be valuable in filling that role. Without the approbation of periodical conductors, publishers and tastemakers, his productions had little chance of success.

Within the geography of London’s streets, Keats was not positioned particularly advantageously for achieving the notice that he required. The No. 8 Dean Street from which he addressed Severn was not the No. 8 Dean Street that still exists in Soho, close to the shops, theatres and high-society amenities of the West End, but a No. 8 Dean Street now eliminated by the vast footprint of London Bridge Station and the railway lines that run away from it. In Keats’ age, this was a location that was unfashionably far to the east and unfashionably south of the river.

Dean Street as depicted in Richard Horwood's Plan (1792-99). See to navigate in more detail

Dean Street as depicted in Richard Horwood’s Plan (1792-99). Visit to navigate in more detail, and watch the video below for tips on how to do so.

It was close to Guy’s Hospital, where Keats trained, but also close to the bustling wharves and warehouses that lined the Thames, to the busy inns along Borough High Street, to the stinking tanneries and glue manufactories of Long Lane and to the hustling commerce of Borough Market. This was not an address with particular éclat or with easy access to the centres of polite culture, which were mostly located along the Strand and in the West End.

Severn too was located some way from the centre of the action. He lodged on Goswell Street (now Goswell Road–and though now a different building, the location of Severn’s lodgings at 128 Goswell Street can be seen here), north of the river, but also north of the commercial heart of the city, surrounded by modest properties and close to a dye house, a substantial brewery and the Charterhouse, a long-established residence for impoverished scholars. While neither young man was more than ten minutes’ walk from the fields that surrounded the city, both were a considerable distance from its cultural heartlands.

This, however, was a distance that Keats for one was determined to close. Madison C. Bates notes in the 1954 article within which this letter was first published that Keats’ opening apology – “nearly sorry” – might not be quite as strange as it first seems, even if that “nearly” is not an error replacing a “really”. “Nearly” could mean “particularly” within the contexts of Keats’ time, making it “both courteous and appropriate” (78) for Keats to tell his friend that he was “nearly sorry” that he wouldn’t be able to meet with him. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this letter sees Keats prioritising other opportunities over socialising with his similarly green friend. Having relatively recently formed the connection with Leigh Hunt that would both smooth the publication and complicate the reception of much of his early verse, he asks his friend to tolerate the attention that he must necessarily give to his desired vocation. Keats also invites Severn to recognise the importance of the acquaintance that he had engineered with Benjamin Robert Haydon, in whose Lisson Grove studio he would eventually participate in the ‘Immortal Dinner’ alongside William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb.

When he visited Haydon in the West End and Hunt in Hampstead, Keats was making considerable investments of time in order to cover the distances involved. However, he was also inserting himself into situations in which he was able to practice self-fashioning himself as a poet. His invitation to Severn to congratulate him on his forthcoming meeting with Haydon indicates that this networking, made possible by the clustering of writers within the metropolis, was something that Keats knew very well that he was engaging in. In attempting to accelerate his acculturation into the society of those who produced and mediated poetry and art, Keats sought to learn through association how he might succeed. His circumstances meant that he did not have infinite time to make poetry work for him. While his verse personae might commonly linger, he himself had some considerable financial incentives to rush.

As this brief note also demonstrates, Keats was assisted in making connections by the fast mechanisms of the city. He was able to dispatch his letter to Severn on a Friday afternoon confident that it would reach his friend either on the same day or, at the worst, early enough on the next for news of his engagement to be of use. This is not a letter like those sent to George and Georgiana Keats after their emigration to the United States, within which the long view was for practical purposes the only one that could be taken. This was a cheap dispatch by the twopenny post, with Keats taking advantage of the speed of the London mail to produce something closer to the quick email apology that harried twenty-first century correspondents might dash off than the worked epistles that he would later use to lay out his ideas about poetry. In being so, it serves as a salutatory reminder that Keats was not always profound and eloquent, providing a little trace of his being, in W.H. Auden’s words, “silly like us”.

If we think of Keats as a Londoner in the twenty-first century, it is often in the context of the “Cockney School” attacks, which mocked his pretensions to poetry in part through associating him with crude urban commerce and with prostitution, describing one of his short amatory poems as a set of “prurient and vulgar lines, evidently meant for some young lady east of Temple-bar” (521) and concluding by ordering him “back to the shop” (524). Even in his short note to Severn, there is evidence that Keats was aware that his roots in the city might be employed against him as he sought to make his reputation through poetry. His slightly pretentious desire to “look into some beautiful Scenery—for poetical purposes” implies that he did not see his everyday metropolitan surroundings as proper subjects for his work, an attitude shared by a great many of his contemporaries. However, while the commerce and fast time of the city were not seen as being conducive for inspiring poetry, they were often crucial for forging the kinds of networks and reputations that made it possible to achieve notice, as they proved to be in Keats’ case. While “slow time” seems more characteristic of the Keats who communicates to us most powerfully today, the networked speed of the metropolis in the 1810s was crucial for his accessing and maintaining the connections through which he launched himself into print and – ultimately – into posterity.


Works Cited

Auden, W.H. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 2007: 245-7.

Bates, Madison C. “Two New Letters of Keats and Byron”. Keats-Shelley Journal 3 (Winter 1954): 75-88.

Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sangster, Matthew. Romantic London. 2015-.

[Lockhart, John Gibson]. “On the Cockney School of Poetry: No. IV”. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 3 (August 1818): 519-24.

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